My dad stepping on my favorite doll (my sister’s, of course.) A pigeon landing on my head (there are photographs.) Crying when my mom dropped me off at school in 1962.
These are the earliest snippets I have of childhood memories. And then this day, November 22, fifty years ago happened. And I have my first extensive and continuous memory.
The assassination of Kennedy has been compared, rightly, to 9-11: it was a moment, frozen in time, suspended in space, that we will reflect on for the rest of our lives.
In some ways, the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks had a deeper meaning than the assassination. Innocent Americans going about their daily routines, caught up in a tragedy of near-astounding proportions, that could have been you or me. The killing of a President, tho, there can only be one at a time.
And in many ways, the reverberations of the JFK killing ran deeper in the soul of the nation than 9-11 ever could.
We were barely 15 years removed from achieving the pinnacle of world acclaim, helping to defeat the Axis powers in World War II, ramping up a military economy at home that saved millions, maybe tens of millions, from extreme poverty and degradation. The roots of the civil rights movement were only just taking hold across the nation. We began to recognize that there were problems in the nation that we had to unite to address, standing behind a government who wanted only to do good.
At the head of that government stood a young, vibrant, charismatic man. John Kennedy was the very embodiment of America of the early Sixties: dynamic, without limits, a fairy tale prince for a fairy tale land. They called it “Camelot,” and it was an apt description, for the events that transpired this day fifty years ago amounted to the defeat of Arthur by Mordred and his betrayal by Guinevere and Lancelot. It washed the innocence of the Quest right from the eyes of Americans: the belief in the infallibility of American democracy, of American freedom, and of American invincibility.
In those three shots by a disaffected American that tore the very mettle of the intellect of the American government, we were thrust into the present, into modern day America. We became this raging, seething monster, lashing out at even the slightest insult.
We had, not to put too fine a point on it, a national case of PTSD.
You can trace the JFK assassination through so many threads of recent history. The civil rights movement became the centerpiece of the subsequent Johnson administration, as did the “War on Poverty” (even in doing good, we raged and made war.) And both of those echo this day in the dying embers of the raging backlash of conservatives against “the takers” and “those people.”
You can even trace the Presidency of Barack Obama to that moment when Kennedy’s brain was splattered across the pavement in Dealey Plaza. The potential of a Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren presidency rests in that history. Would these have happened earlier or later had Oswald missed? Who knows? We can only know what has happened.
You can trace it militarily, too. We amped up the Cold War via the Vietnam conflict, creating what Dwight Eisenhower termed “the military-industrial complex,” to prove to the Soviets that we were not weak, despite the flaw of the killing. To this day, we send our youth to die in remote lands fighting for beliefs and ideals stretched to a gossamer-thin membrane to cover the economic folly of 1% of the nation. We have seen four years of peace since 1963: the Carter administration. We felt so exposed by the assassination that we struck out, as the best defense is a good offense.
I was five. I was in first grade. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and we had art class. A convenient excuse for us to make a mess with Tempra paints and for the teacher to pack up for the upcoming weekend, just moments away. I was carrying a tray of paints back to my desk. I was marching up the right-hand aisle of a poorly-lit classroom in an older school, by the coat closet. You remember those, the ones with the folding wooden doors that always managed to be both splintered and safe at the same instance. I was feet from my desk, when the principal made the announcement, that terrible sentence “The President has been shot and killed.”
She put the microphone up to the radio, maybe it was the TV, and there was Walter Cronkite repeating in his stentorian voice, a bedrock of calm despite his obvious turmoil, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: (reading AP flash) "President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time." 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
And with that, the nation, the world, was never the same.